November 11, 2015

Watching America watch cricket

Might the game have found a foothold in the USA if not for Babe Ruth?

Big in the Big Apple: expats filled (ish) Citi Field for the first of the All-Stars games © Rob Tringali/ESPN

Maybe it's the impending anniversary of Phillip Hughes' death. Or the daily drip of allegations from Southwark Crown Court, where Daniel Vettori and Brendon McCullum denounced their old pal Chris Cairns with such heart-rending regret. Or those endless replays of Ben Stokes all but impaling his right shoulder on the brick-hard Sharjah outfield. Or those paltry "crowds" in Brisbane and Mohali. Maybe it's just the greyer days and longer nights. Whatever.

This column has spent the past month seeking something, anything, to rouse something other than a grimace over matters cricketing. That it succeeded is mostly a reflection of the ease with which we can all be seduced by the smaller picture.

That one of the smile-inducers was the sight of Shane Warne and Brian Lara having at each other on a baseball ground in New York should be reason enough for one hearty cheer. That the other was Adil Rashid, the first English leggie for 80 years to pluck a five-fer from a Test overseas, ought to justify a second, a third and possibly even a fourth. A fifth would have been in order had the boy Srinivasan not been due to be replaced as ICC chairman by Giles Clarke.

The late, great Alan Ross, poet, magazine editor and long-time cricket correspondent for the Observer, captured the visual allure of flannelled tomfoolery more memorably than most, and nowhere, not even in his delicious rhapsody to England's most enchanting batsman, "Watching Gower Bat", did he capture it more vividly than in the following lines:

Leg-spinners pose problems much like love,
Requiring commitment, the taking of a chance.
Half-way deludes; the bold advance.
Right back, there's time to watch
Developments, though perhaps too late.

The title of the poem is "Watching Benaud Bowl", and while it may be somewhat premature to propose that Rashid will one day inspire such luscious lines, this column, having been well and truly smitten by the Yorkshireman's modus operandi, freely confesses to being hopelessly and irretrievably biased.

Beautiful bowling actions are even more indelible than their batting counterparts: more athletic, more pronounced, even lavish, in their movements; less textbookish, more distinctive. Unanimity, moreover, is more common than might be envisaged. This may simply be because, above all, the most aesthetically pleasing actions must look easy, endlessly repeatable, natural. No mean feat given the ultimate truth about propelling five-and-a-half-ounce cork-and-leather spheroids for a living, which, for fast bowlers in particular, is as unnatural as any sporting act gets.

And that's why, even though taste is always hugely subjective (in this column's eyes, Wasim Akram surged in too hurriedly to look effortless), Michael Holding has been universally hailed for the past three decades, quite properly, as the quintessence of bowling as art form. It was all in that Rolls Royce of a run-up: silky-smooth, eerily calm, momentum gathered imperceptibly, deceptive to the final coil and snap. And just as left-handers are generally more sensual than right for the simple reason that most of us are right-handers (think Gower, Lara, Pollock and Sobers), so left-armers hold a disproportionate number of places in the upper echelons of the Action Hall of Fame, led by Bishan Bedi, Alan Davidson and Bernard Julien.

North Americans have been resisting cricket for the best part of two centuries now, many seeing the game as a ghastly symbol of that snobby, class-obsessed land their forefathers fought so hard to leave

It is wristspinners, nonetheless, who dominate the walls of this column's internal gallery. Admittedly, there was a false start. Far too unorthodox - not to say wooden-jointed and almost timid of approach - was the first candidate, Johnny Gleeson, the folded-finger Jack Iverson doppelganger who befuddled Geoff Boycott among others during the 1968 Ashes (cue one of the less complimentary stories about our Geoffrey: when asked by the freshly arrived Basil D'Oliveira for some pointers about tackling Gleeson, he obliged by telling him to work it out for himself).

Thus it was that, when Pakistan toured Blighty in 1971, Intikhab Alam and Mushtaq Mohammad became the gallery's first acquisitions. They might as well have been joined at the hip. Both were jaunty, bubbly and bouncy, forever flexing a devilish wrist as they headed creasewards, making it abundantly plain to the batsman that they had far too many tricks for him. Mushie had the longer run-up, a vaguely spidery but generally uplifting thing; better yet was Inti, a more corpulent figure, who almost scampered in, and delivered the ball with a flourish befitting a magician pulling a dove from his sleeve. A love affair had begun.

Next up, that same summer, was the inimitable Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, a medium-pacer until the moment before he let go. To learn that a) his bowling arm had been withered by polio, and b) he'd downed a scotch before bewildering England at The Oval, was all a teenager needed to develop and nourish a lasting crush.

As the years wore on, others joined the gallery: Richie himself (via video cassette), Kerry O'Keeffe, Bob Holland, Ian Salisbury, Mushtaq Ahmed, Danish Kaneria, Brad Hogg, Amit Mishra - all singular and indelible of mode. Not Anil Kumble - too tall, too angular, too mechanical. And not, as yet, Lionel Messi's double, aka Yasir Shah, who spurts in rather too quickly and anonymously for these excessively fussy taste buds. If you want to be remembered for something other than mere wickets, dear boy, do slow down. We want to appreciate you.

Which brings us back to Rashid. Yes, what emerges from that right paw isn't always as potent as intended, but give him time (and more sessions with His Shaneness). More importantly, just about everything that precedes delivery is perfect: fluent, fluid, loose-limbed, exquisitely curvy, light of touch - Benaud with knobs on. Never mind the Long Room, the Louvre awaits.

****

And so to the opening game of the so-called Cricket All-Stars Series, at Citi Field, home to the New York Mets and, for one afternoon, a T20 bout between Sachin's Old Blasters and Shane's Ancient Warriors. For all its cruel, almost sadistic brevity, the highlight was Warne v Lara, a duel one never imagined seeing again and hence more precious than rubies. The lowlight was unquestionably the media coverage. New York's Daily News, an admirable, rabble-rousing, left-leaning tabloid that had the impeccable sense to hire this column's niece a few weeks ago, claimed with somewhat less unerring judgement that Sachin was "perhaps the sport's greatest batsman".

Rashid: pretty like Richie © Getty Images

Following that should have taken some doing, but in the very next paragraph came a reference to Warne's reported assertion that T20 is "a mash-up of cricket and WWE". As in that ludicrous, animal-free, beast-crammed circus otherwise known as World Wrestling Entertainment? Hang on, Shaney, you dear old thing: missionary zeal is all very well, but next time stick to promises that have at least a wafer-thin prospect of being kept. At least those actorly grapplers are semi-fit.

Still, what did we expect? This venture, which continues in Houston today and concludes in Los Angeles, is not remotely about beauty, subtlety or accuracy; it's about The Big Sell. Make that The Impossible Sell.

North Americans have been resisting cricket for the best part of two centuries now, many seeing the game as a ghastly symbol of that snobby, class-obsessed land their forefathers fought so hard to leave, and then battled so bravely to send its army packing. They also regarded it as a mite unthrilling. Groucho Marx's first and only trip to Lord's found the comic class warrior awaking from a snooze and asking when the game was going to start.

Students of counter-factual history may care to note this column's long-standing, if slightly dodgy, theory that, but for a daft wheeler-dealer named Harry Frazee, the razzle-dazzle at Citi Field might not have been necessary. Frazee, you see, not only owned the Boston Red Sox in 1919 but was producing a Broadway show when he realised the latter needed more funds. That's why he sold Babe Ruth, the era's greatest left-handed pitcher, to the New York Yankees. Ruth had slogged 29 home runs that year, breaking the seasonal record by the length of the Hudson River. Having given up pitching altogether, he almost doubled that tally the following season. The timing was immaculate.

That year also saw the trial of the eight members of the Chicago White Sox team who had conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series; although they were found not guilty (confessions mysteriously went missing) they were banned from organised baseball sine die. It remains the most infamous episode in US sporting annals, plunging the game into a crisis of credibility. It took something extraordinary to restore its place in the nation's hearts so quickly.

Ruth's hitting talents, not to mention his lust for women and excess, made him an absolute one-off, but it is impossible not to wonder whether he would have had half the impact had he stayed in staid New England. Had he done so, it does not seem entirely out of the question that the cricketers of the eastern seaboard - led by Philadelphia's remarkable fast bowler Bart King, who made so many duck and gasp when he toured England - would have prospered more than they did.

But back to the future. Had Sachin and Shane hatched their cunning plan a decade ago, their chances of success would have been middling to decent. Regrettably, given that the reason the vast majority of the estimated 25,000 crowd turned up was simply to glimpse Tendulkar's impressive sideburns (some paying US$175 for the privilege), optimism remains firmly bounded.

Still, watching Warne bewitch and beguile anew was a complete treat, almost enough to get this column through another week of revelations from Southwark Crown Court. Pity about that crabby, musclebound action, mind. Those WWE chappies should sign him up, pronto.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now

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